Iran is a rare example, in terms of its navy – it has two. This is an extraordinary, but largely forced approach. For a long time, the country has been facing a stiff economic and technological blockade by the West. In this situation, Iran has been forced to find and develop the most cost-effective approach in its defense strategy.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, is dubbed by the country’s leadership a strategic force, and employs a conventional doctrine focusing on forward presence and naval diplomacy. Its mission areas include the Caspian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and out-of-area operations. The Iranian Navy has a relatively low number of warship and is not intended to counter modern fleets, like those of the US or the UK. At the same time, the Iranian Navy is capable enough to deal with threats from the country’s regional competitors that also have limited capabilities in terms of the conventional naval power.
The second Iranian naval force is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) – it is established on an asymmetric doctrine, entirely focused on ensuring national security in the Persian Gulf. The IRGCN’s doctrine sees naval powers of Western countries as its main potential adversaries.
The most significant role in recent developments, and in the last decades has been playing by the IRGCN’s fast boats, which it heavily relies on.
The recent seizure of the UK-flagged Stena Impero, the Panamanian-flagged Riah and the detention and release of the Mesdar show that the IRGCN is more than capable of enforcing its authority in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. The speedy boats allowed Iran to quickly carry out its operation and successfully move away.
It is not entirely impossible for Iran to be able to turn into reality its threats of potentially closing the Strait of Hormuz, depending on the circumstances at the given moment.
The IRGCN’s strategy is focused on several things – deter a maritime attack if possible, rapidly escalate if deterrence fails, and wage a protracted war if necessary, in the Persian Gulf and specifically in the Strait of Hormuz.
Fundamental to this strategy is the exploitation of geography and the use of asymmetric doctrine to combat a superior force. The assumption is that the IRGCN’s speed boats can overcome the enemy defenses in the confined waters, by combining their small and mobile weapons systems, or by using them in innovative ways to reach a tactical surprise.
The IRGCN consists of around 20,000 marines, and 1,500 crafts, including fast attack boats, maintains large arsenals of coastal defense and anti-ship cruise missiles and mines, and operates helicopters and ground effect vehicles. It also includes the Sepah Navy Special Force, a special forces unit specialized in heliborne, amphibious warfare and naval boarding.
In the Persian Gulf, the IRGCN has several missions:
- To enforce Iran’s territorial water claims and protects Iranian economic and security interests;
- Monitor and track the movements of foreign warships and merchant ships operating in its area of responsibility;
- Besides defending vital Iranian interests, the IRGCN could be seen as a force that deter possible attacks by demonstrating a military strength and signaling that aggressive actions against the country will have serious global economic repercussions.
As a demonstration of its growing capabilities, the IRGCN holds highly publicized, large-scale, deterrent-themed annual exercises (called NOBLE PROPHET).
The IRGCN’s doctrine reflects irregular warfare principles that include the use of, surprise, deception, speed, flexibility and adaptability, decentralization, and highly mobile and maneuverable units. All of these on the sea. These warfare methods include hit-and-run style, surprise attacks, or the amassing of large numbers of means and measures to overwhelm the enemies’ defenses. In this event, the employed naval forces could described as a swarm of small boats using their size and maneuverability to track and hunt down enemy warships.
The IRGCN’s mosquito-fleet concept enables rapid formation of tactical groups of small crafts to carry out a surprise strike from different directions in a particular area in the offshore zone and at a particular time. Such groups can deploy in attack formation immediately prior to reaching the area of the attack.
Crafts from the formation reach their assault position line independently or by small groups. Therefore, the Iranian naval thought intends to employ the swarm concept. It’s important to note the high motivation and ideological training of mariners involved. Personnel understand perfectly well the high level of threat to them personally in the event of the employment of this tactical scheme. IRGCN personnel are motivated and ready to accomplish a feat to defend their homeland. This factor (the high motivation of the personnel) makes a mosquito-fleet armed with missile, torpedo and anti-air weapons especially dangerous to naval forces of Western states.
The IRGCN employs several types of boats:
- Fast Attack Craft (FAC) – it has 10 Chinese-built Houdong WPTGs, acquired in the mid-90s. These are the capital ships of the IRGCN, they used to be equipped with C802 missiles, but were upgraded with Ghader missiles.
Immediately, after acquiring the Houdongs, the IRGCN shifted its focus on even smaller boats. In a 10-year period between ’96 and ’06, it acquired 46 FACs from China and North Korea, they are equipped with torpedoes, short-range anti-ship cruise missiles, or both, and can reach speeds of 40-50 knots;
- Fast Inshore Attack Craft – these are lightly armed boats which the IRGCN has been successfully using since the 1980s, and are one of the largest threats it presents.
The IRGCN has a copy of the British-built Bladerunner – the Siraj-1. The Siraj-1 is armed with multiple-rocket-launcher system and a heavy anti-aircraft machinegun on the prow. It can reportedly reach a speed between 55 to 72 knots.
Another boat is the Zolfaghar, which reaches a maximum speed of 70 knots and mounts an integrated radar and two launch canisters for Nasr-1 cruise missiles on its stern.
The IRGCN further has semi-submersible boats, that can partially submerge below the water surface to evade detection and can be used for sabotage, special-forces insertion and spying.
IRGCN patrols in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf regularly include surveillance and monitoring of U.S. Navy and Coalition ships. The US calls the maneuvers of The IRGCN’s speedboats “unprofessional and unsafe.”
- In March 2018, the IRGCN released a video showing speed boats approaching the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier.
- In late 2017, Iran accused the US Navy of approaching the IRGCN’s ships, and attempting to stage a provocation. One situation around the same time, saw a US warship approach an IRGCN and fire warning shots into the air, without apparent reason.
- In 2016, the IRGCN arrested ten US Marines after their patrol boats entered Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf.
The US claims that it opposes any presumed aggressive actions by Iran, and maintains that it is simply defending the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and wishes to guarantee free passage through the Strait of Hormuz. In own turn, the Iranian leadership sees US actions as a direct threat to Iranian national interests.
The US military leadership has been for long time developing approaches to counter Iranian deterrence capabilities in the Persian Gulf, and in particular the IRGC Navy. In their reports, US analysis address the importance of the ability of airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms to find, fix, and continuously track potential threats at range, as well as the development of specific weapon systems: particularly, shipborne gun systems and air- and surface launched precision guided weapons – optimized for anti-surface warfare. Another declared need in the usage of ‘smart’ medium-calibre ammunition that will provide a cost-effective measure to deal with swarm-like formations. The U.S. Navy even designed its Littoral Combat Ships with countering Iranian fast boats in mind. However, the complicated history of this project turned to the point, when LCS are now being re-orient to “great power” conflict.
Iran has a comprehensive military doctrine with a high role of asymmetric warfare. There are two main reasons why Iran is using two independent components of the naval power:
- Different types of threats that Iran faces from naval forces of regional powers (like Saudi Arabia or the UAE) and Western states (like the US, the UK or France).
- A complicated economic situation, in which Iran operates. This situation is compounded by though sanctions. These sanctions are designed to prevent technology transfer to Iran and create barriers to the development of the Iranian military industrial complex.
The combination of these factors forced Iran to use all intellectual efforts of its military thought to develop the model that will be capable to deal with different types of threats, and will be sustainable under the conditions of the constant sanction pressure on the Iranian economy and military industrial complex.
Since the Iran-Iraq War, Iran has greatly expanded the IRGCN’s role and capabilities, including its ability to escalate the scope and intensity of any conflict and to project Iranian power in its area of operations. The Iranian naval capabilities do not allow it to challenge the US Navy in an open confrontation beyond the Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, the IRGCN in its current incarnation is a well-equipped and highly trained force that is ready to deliver a painful blow to Iran’s enemies and disrupt global oil trade in the event of the military confrontation in the close proximity to the Iranian shores.